Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Thank you, Mr. Minor

Two interesting pieces in the June Zeek:

Leah Koenig writes on "The So Called Jewish Cultural Revolution". The article is nominally about klezmer hiphop accordionist So Called (aka Josh Dolgin), but also discusses the relationship between innovative Jewish startup endeavors (artistic and otherwise) and the "mainstream" Jewish institutions.

Without exaggeration, So Called is truly the best klezmer hiphop accordionist I have ever seen. If you've never seen any, go and see So Called; the spectacle of his Yiddish rapping can't be summed up in mere words. I want to see him team up with Corn Mo. On the other hand, and I'm going to be put in cherem from the hip Jewish circles for saying this, I'm not so into Matisyahu (who, like So Called, records on JDub Records and appears in this article). The whole "Hasidic reggae superstar" thing looks great on paper, but then I saw him and realized that I don't actually like reggae (other than some of the ubiquitous standard Bob Marley catalog, and there's no way that "Redemption Song" can be classified as reggae anyway). All the songs started to sound the same to me, and they all started like the first few measures of Phish's "Harry Hood", so I just kept on being disappointed that they didn't then segue into the rest of "Harry Hood". Where do you go when the lights go out? I didn't even get hit by a glowstick. But that's ok. "Led Zeppelin didn't write songs that everyone liked. They left that to the Bee Gees."

I disagree with So Called's assessment of Debbie Friedman as "corny ... crap". Yes, DF's studio albums are overproduced, and especially on the later ones, the synthesizer ruins otherwise excellent songs (give me the live "Shelter of Peace" any day), but when it's just her on the guitar and maybe a live backup band, that's great stuff. Of course I'm biased, because DF taught me everything I know about songleading, and I wrote a hagiographic academic article about her and co-founded a minyan on which she is one of the primary influences, and I have a soft spot for even the unquestionably corny stuff like "Sing Unto God". But Debbie Friedman should be recognized for her revolutionary effect on tefillah in the Reform movement and beyond. The liner notes for Sing Unto God (1972) are prescient: "Sing Unto God is a new experience in worship that emphasizes through song the importance of community involvement in worship. This music carries a solid message in a simple, easily understood form. It enables those who are willing, to join together as a community in contemporary songs of prayer. " What So Called and Matisyahu are doing today, syncretistically turning hiphop and reggae into Jewish music, is precisely what DF and her contemporaries did with the American folk music of the '60s. Perhaps our generation will have succeeded when our innovative edgy art becomes our children's corny crap.

Koenig's article also explores how the various Jewish startups have attracted attention (and funding) from the big foundations and federations, who see that these startups are engaging the younger generation in a way that the established organizations aren't. On the one hand, a source of venture capital for the startups is of course a good thing; on the other: "Although the foundations and philanthropists are hedging their bets that these innovative upstarts can help revive the waning pulse of contemporary Judaism, they want to make sure they are getting their money’s worth ... Welcome to the Jewish Cultural Revolution (this revolution may be monitored for quality control purposes)."

Is it "selling out" to accept money for a substantive Jewish project if the funders might have a completely different agenda ("Holocaust, Israel, and Jewish babies")? I say no, as long as the dot-org entrepreneurs continue to set their own agendas rather than reshaping themselves to someone else's priorities. And as far as I can tell, JDub and the other startups in the article are keeping it real. It's not such a bad thing for us to let the mainstream organizations believe they're saving our souls even if our visions differ. And if they want to support "cool" Jewish expression for our generation, better for them to give us the money to do it ourselves so that the expression is authentic, because when they try to look "cool", they make fools of themselves.

I could get on my high horse about how Kol Zimrah hasn't gotten any mainstream funding, but I won't, because that would be idiotic. Of course we would have jumped at the chance, and we've done without it for two reasons: 1) We have been very fortunate to form a relationship with the SAJ, which has been hosting us on Friday nights while giving our community the space to pursue our vision, and 2) our financial needs are just much less than these other organizations -- we spend 0 on marketing, we are completely localized in New York (the Jerusalem spinoff runs itself), and nobody is making a living from Kol Zimrah. So we started off with a budget of $0 (which was very constricting, but we held on), and since we incorporated, we have paid our bills from contributions large and small within the KZ community. Some of the other startups, in contrast, need a lot more stuff to carry out their mission, including offices and employees. And it's a wonderful development that big Jewish money is now supporting these endeavors. Let's hope that it never turns into MTV or Fruitopia.

In the same issue, Jay Michaelson writes on "Star Wars, George Bush, Judaism, and the Penis". I guess we're now at the point where anyone who cares about seeing Revenge of the Sith has seen it, so it's ok to talk about it now. The article contrasts the Jedi and Sith philosophies, applying them to contemporary politics, Judaism, gender, and life. Jewish ethics are identified with the Jedi:
How ironic, then, to find today Jewish rhetoric married to a radically anti-Jewish ideology of strength, "personal responsibility," power, and militarism. Today's Jewish neocons willfully miss the narrative of empathy, in favor of selected "Old Testament" pronouncements of moral absolutism. Their Israeli far-right cohorts focus on the Book of Joshua more than the Book of Isaiah, on holiness codes more than the Golden Rule. And both act as though Judaism were a religion of power, when clearly it is that of the dispossessed. Thus marrying memes of Jewish power to emotional motifs of victimhood, they espouse numerous policies of cruelty, with disastrous results.

I don't agree with all the gender designations in the article (the Sith/Right is masculine, while the Jedi/Left is feminine). I am more inclined toward George Lakoff's concept of the nation as a family, which conservatives see through the Strict Father model and progressives see through the Nurturant Parent model. These models map onto Jay Michaelson's understanding of the Sith/Jedi dichotomy, but the genders are different: the Strict Father is masculine (with the subservient female as part of the model), while the Nurturant Parent is gender-neutral.

Even if the Sith are ascendant today and the Jedi are driven into hiding, perhaps there are Lukes and Leias among us who will be a New Hope.

1 comment:

  1. After what happened in China in the '60s, shouldn't the term "cultural revolution" be retired permanently?

    And I like every Led Zeppelin song, something I can't say about the Bee Gees.